Friday, March 21, 2008

Choosing a Monopod

I've been considering a monopod for quite a while because my tripod (a Velbon CX-570) is too big, bulky, and sloppy to use with my Sigma 600mm f/8 Mirror lens. Also, with my son starting baseball this month, I expect a monopod will come in handy when I shoot his games with my Canon 70-200mm f/4L USM.

I have used the Velbon like a tripod (with all legs retracted but one) and determined that a monopod would definitely help me. I'll do a review of the Velbon in the near future -- the short version is that it has a lot of value for the price, but ultimately it isn't very good.

So, these are my notes for my monopod research.

As always, mouse over the product names to see the price and info at Amazon. Many of these items you can save a few dollars getting them somewhere else (like B&H) but Amazon is usually the best place to start.

How to Use a Monopod:

Before I get into specific brands, it is worth mentioning that monopods aren't meant to be used in the way most people want to (straight up and down, perpendicular to the ground). You can actually get a lot more stability by tilting the monopod and applying force on it in conjunction with your body. Since I don't have a monopod, I am not an expert in this, but these guys are:

The main thing to note is that both pages cite similar techniques, and most (if not all) of the techniques require at least one axis of tilt (two if you don't have a tripod collar and want to shoot in portrait orientation). In other words, a bare monopod really won't cut it because it will restrict your usage of the stick based on your shooting altitude. You really need to add a head too.

The Low End:

Like all aspects of photography, there's a consumer level of monopods in the $25-$40 range. Most notably:
While these monopods are a great deal for under $40 and all include a head, they all have maximum weight ratings around 5 lbs which probably isn't suitable for a dSLR if you ever plan to put a decent size lens on your camera. Also, the plastic heads will not hold up as well as other types.

So, for me, these aren't an option. My goal right now is to spend a little more and buy a monopod I can use for the next decade or two. If you have a small dSLR and don't plan on using a large telephoto with it, or if you have a small point and shoot camera, these options are a great value.

The Middle Ground: My Area

The next step up from the low end is the medium range with major players Manfrotto/Bogen (monopod line) and Giottos. There are some high-end companies like Gitzo but those monopods are beyond my means.


(as yet, I can't understand the brand difference between Manfrotto and Bogen, so I use them interchangeably)

Originally, I was leaning toward buying into the Manfrotto/Bogen system with the Manfrotto 679 as my starting point. I played with one at Keeble and Shuchat and really liked the sturdiness of it. It is made to carry up to 22 lbs which is plenty for my needs. By the way, the Manfrotto 680 is nearly identical, but it has four sections instead of three (to be more compact), weighs a little more, and doesn't extend quite as high. Plus, it is more expensive. And I'm staying clear of the Manfrotto 676 because it only supports 10 lbs. If I'm going to get a decent monopod, I want it to be as sturdy as possible, even if that means it is slighter bigger and heavier.

Of course, even after I spend the $50 to get one of those 'pods, I'd still need to purchase a head. My goals for the head are at least once axis of tilt (to allow vertical orientation of the camera and/or altitude flexibility) and a quick release. I don't really see the point in the Bogen 3232 because it lacks a quick release, which is something I definitely want. The Bogen 3229 has the single axis of rotation along with a quick release, but I'm really leaning toward the Bogen 486RC2 because it is a full ball head, even though it costs twice as much as the 3229, more than the monopod!

The complete cost of the 486RC2 and 679 would be over $120. But, the advantage of spending more on the head now is that I could then buy a set of legs from Manfrotto for around $100 and use the 486RC2 to complete an entry level professional tripod.


I was pretty much planning on the Manfrotto 679 until I saw the Giottos MM5580 P-pod. The MM5580 is an oddball because, for $80, it includes a tilt head, quick release, and extra legs.

Yeah, I said extra legs...

The P-pod part of the MM5580 is a set of three metal legs which can be screwed into the bottom of the monopod to make a tripod stand. You can't really expect it to be nearly as sturdy as a normal tripod, but it'd be an easy way to do hands-free long exposures or support the camera while you change lenses. Plus, it'd make a nice light stand! You can also screw two legs in near the top of the monopod to make a macro tripod, something which sounds pretty nice to me. The legs stow in the column when you aren't using them.

Of course, everything has a downside. The main downside to the built in quick release, head, and extra legs is weight; the MM5580 weighs twice as much as the 679 (about 3 lbs). Of course, a head with the 679 would weigh a similar amount. I'm also a bit concerned that the head and quick release of the MM5580 will be less than sturdy in the long run, plus, I won't get double duty and the ability to move the head to a set of tripod legs later.

The Giottos MM5580 does seem to be getting pretty good reviews (POTN thread).

Giottos also has a line of monopods and heads with similar prices as Bogen/Manfrotto. I haven't fully investigated the line because I was distracted by the MM5580. If I decide to not go with the 5580, I'll look into the Giottos aluminum line and compare it to Manfrotto.

What to do?

So, as of now, I have yet to make up my mind. I think it is one of those things that I'll be happy either way, but I need more time to scrape together the cash and verify that I really do need a monopod.

I'll keep you posted!

Update 4/7: I ordered a used MM5580 on eBay. Details here.

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